Social design is the application of design methodologies to solutions for complex human problems. A world battling pollution, education, inequality, and climate change requires each of us to contribute in ways we deem meaningful. There is a need for design professionals and recent design graduates to think beyond traditional (product, building, service) design through an additional lens of purpose.
Design is a tool to create environmental and social value that has a role in social development and is definitely the need of the hour.
But the question is how do designers find these opportunities? Enough design schools and institutions are not taking it upon them to urge students to think about the potential impact that they can have in the world through their work. Secondly, most people, designers included, are of the opinion that solving social problems are for government, non-profits, and CSR institutions, and hence don’t think about this as a career opportunity.
Last but not the least, one of the biggest challenges is the fact that the role of design in the social development sector is still not a mainstream concept in India and most parts of the world and hence, there are no such ‘jobs’ to begin with. Until we change this narrative and create platforms/avenues/opportunities to engage and make available careers for design professionals and recent graduates in the social development space we will not be able to grow the field and make these opportunities readily available to pursue.
In this article we highlight design mindsets and toolsets that can be incorporated in social development work and help prepare potential social designers for this field.
1. Looking for impactful career choices
The first option of course is looking for opportunities to use your design skills to solve environmental and societal problems, be it in government, non-profits, CSR, or design consultancies that consult for any of these. If you decide to start on your own be mindful of the problem that your organisation will solve.
2. Getting into the right mindset
Whether you are already working or looking for your next gig and want to do more with your design skills start by training your muscles like a social designer.
● Adaptability: Given the ever-changing social landscape, it is vital that our thinking is both flexible and adaptable to support future growth and change.
● Learning through failure: The process is iterative with the need to constantly pivot in face of new learnings, insights, and data.
● Cultivate empathy: Being empathetic is always a given in design. You might have heard it a lot. Empathy means understanding and sharing. Taking some time out to truly listen is important when you design for them. Only when you listen, you are able to understand the problem and the solutions.
● Embrace ambiguity: There are always times that we start solving a problem and then realise after more in-depth research that the problem that we set out to solve was not the problem at all and end up learning the crux of the problem. Embracing such ambiguous moments ultimately end up leading to ‘Aha!’ moments in design.
3. Building your toolset
Whether you are already working or looking for your next gig and want to do more with your design skills start by building a social designer toolset.
Design is an iterative and non-linear process that can be divided into four phases – Understanding, Looking, Making, and Testing.
While designing for one end user, one can fall into the trap of unintended consequences for other people in the system interacting with the user. When you design, you design within a larger system, in order to leverage best experiences for all the players in the system, systems mapping is a useful tool to understand the ecosystem.
Often times, explaining the problem is the hardest. Storytelling involves communicating design insights, and creating brands and bite-sized information that are easily understandable and approachable. Storytelling adds value to the user experience and involves both visual storytelling, verbal and written narratives.
Measurement and evaluation:
It’s easy to fall in love with our solutions and ideas. And hence, it’s important to create a feedback loop to ensure that our design solutions are working. Measurement and evaluation is a crucial step in social design to track progress.
4. Social design learning resources
Last but not the least, change is the only constant so don’t wait to become a continuous learner. Here are some wonderful resources to learn and get inspired by people all around the world using design approaches in social impact.
Podcasts – Podcasts are great for inspiration and get a sneak peek into what others in the field are doing, for example Social Design Insights by the Curry Stone Foundation.
Open innovation challenges – Nothing is better than picking up a challenge with a friend or colleague – Open Innovation Practice by Ideo.
Toolkits – The wheel does not have to be reinvented each time, there are plenty of toolkits to refer
● Design for Health by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dalberg Design, Sonder, and USAID
● D.I.Y Toolkit by Nesta, UK
● NYC Civic Service Design by New York City Mayor’s Office of Innovation
Talking to people in the field – There is nothing better than learning about the impact space and the role that you and your skills can play by speaking to people who are affected the most by the problem as well as those who are in the frontlines trying to solve these problems.
I hope these resources are helpful to open our minds to new ideas and possibilities whether we work for technology companies or non-profits or consultancies. The question I want to leave you with is how might we as designers incorporate strategies to be leaders of advocating for social change wherever we go?